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Fat Nag takes ‘SNAP Challenge’

Updated: October 24, 2013 6:17AM

For years The Fat Nag, yours truly, has been nudging, cajoling, pleading, that we all get the fat off. Obesity rates in America are through the roof. “The fat is killing us,” is her mantra.

Last week, the Nag was challenged to reconsider her crusade — by taking the SNAP Challenge.

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. Every September community leaders, politicians and journalists take on the SNAP Challenge. For one week, I pledged to limit my personal spending for food to the standard SNAP allotment for one week. In Illinois, that’s about $35 a week for an individual, or $5 a day.

About 1 million individual SNAP recipients live in Cook County, according to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. On average, an individual must make no more than $15,000 to qualify.

As a journalist who covers poverty issues, I hoped the challenge would be a window into the world of SNAP.

I don’t cook, and eat out frequently. The rules seemed excruciating. Five dollars a day for all foods and beverages. No “freebies” from friends or family. No restaurant meals.

On a SNAP budget, there’s little room for $4 lattes, sweets, fresh fish, meats and vegetables.

“Get ready for rice and beans,” a friend advised. “Lots of rice. And beans.”

I shopped at a discount grocery store. Still, the cheapest foods were high in carbs, low in nutrition. Over five days, I stayed in my budget, but I got just two portions of fresh, green vegetables. A few bananas — and lots of beans. I had to skip some meals (cheated just once with a freebie). I “cooked” a batch of mealy spaghetti in canned tomato sauce.

The husband called it “gruel.”

I craved coffee, a ripe, juicy orange, a glass of wine. When you don’t eat well, you don’t feel good. My head hurt. I was stressed, sluggish, crabby. So crabby. By Wednesday, the husband was offering to “sell” me a cup of Joe.

SNAP recipients must live with food monotony and impossible choices. They are the SNAP survivors. Food is fundamental to the human spirit. On SNAP, your choices are limited by geography, time and availability. You never get what you want. I’ve always wondered why so many low-income people, even the homeless, are obese. Now the Fat Nag knows.

The challenge “debunks the myth that SNAP is this incredibly generous benefit,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of the food depository. “There are people who think the people who receive the SNAP benefit are dining on caviar and Champagne every day. So I think it is important to get out the truth that this is actually not a robust program.”

On Friday night, the husband insisted on taking me out to dinner. I surrendered.

I can return to a life of food abundance. The poor cannot.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut $39 billion in SNAP funding over the next 10 years. The Republican leadership argued there is too much fraud and abuse in the program. The legislation now moves to a congressional conference committee.

I’m all for eliminating abuses, but no one should have to live like this just because they are poor.

For more on my challenge, visit


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